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The Many Faces of a BC Winter

by Kay Miller | BCAA Magazine, Winter 2018

When we talk about winter driving, it’s tempting to fixate solely on tips for navigating snow and ice: install winter tires, take it slow, carry salt, monitor the weather forecast and so on. While this is all sage advice, BC winters are a mixed bag that can toss out nearly any condition on top of white stuff and frigid temperatures. So read on for a few other ways the season can manifest in this province – and how to drive safely no matter what face winter decides to put on.


Longer hours of darkness

With the onset of winter, daylight dwindles, and we’re more likely to be driving at night. Before you set out, test all of your vehicle’s lights, advises Stu Miller, Senior Operations Manager for BCAA’s Auto Service Centres. And, of course, remember to switch on your headlights and tail lights. They allow you to see, but also be seen.

“It’s also really important, if you’ve been driving for a while, to wipe ice and dirt off your lights,” he adds. Newer LED and HID lights run cooler than incandescent and halogen varieties, and may need more scraping to remove buildup.

Speeding is especially dangerous in the dark. Low beams illuminate around 45 to 75 metres ahead, and high beams around 150 metres. If you travel at speeds that increase your stopping distance beyond these lengths, you’re “overdriving” your lights and won’t see an obstacle in time to stop.

In the dark, expect other motorists to be vision-limited and possibly drowsy, and drive even more defensively, says Miller. Use extra caution when picking up and dropping off kids at school in winter months, for instance, and watch for pedestrians, who may not be dressed in bright or reflective clothing.

“All of a sudden it gets a bit darker and people aren’t really prepared for it. They don’t leave themselves extra time to get places when they should,” he says.


bc rain

Rain

A BC winter is a wet winter, especially in coastal regions and the Lower Mainland. Good wiper blades are critical to visibility in everything from light rain to heavy downpours. Replace them every six months to a year, or whenever you notice a decline in performance, like streaking or skipping. You’ll want to install winter blades before the season sets in, for their sturdier frames and softer rubber that stays flexible in cold temperatures. If you’re out in a heavy downpour that your wipers can’t clear, slow down until sightlines through the windshield improve.

Moisture buildup on roads raises the risk of hydroplaning, or tires losing contact with the pavement and skimming uncontrolled along the water surface. Properly inflated tires with unworn tread and sipes (small cuts that funnel away water) are your best ally for traction on wet roads, says Miller.

Drivers should also avoid using cruise control in heavy downpours, as it can make hydroplaning worse by applying gas, attempting to maintain the preset speed. If your vehicle starts to hydroplane, ease your foot off the gas and hold the wheel steady until your tires regain grip.


Sun and glare

Those in the Lower Mainland might doubt its existence, but the sun does come out to play during a BC winter, especially in the Interior. “A good example is any day during the winter in Prince George. It’s –25°C and sunny, as if it’s the middle of summer. The amount of glare you get coming off vehicles, icy roads and snow is quite brutal,” says Miller. Shorter hours of daylight also mean we’re often driving when the sun is low in the sky, at eye level.

As with any condition that reduces visibility, it’s safest to decrease speed. Also increase your following distance from the standard two seconds, to three or more, says Miller. Use your vehicle’s visors and invest in a good pair of polarized sunglasses, he adds. Better yet, plan out your route before you leave to minimize time spent driving directly into the sun.


Slush and black ice

BC’s winter temperatures can be warmer on average than other provinces, hovering around 0°C for longer. This means our roads often sit right at the freeze-thaw point, which can be even more slippery than driving in a total deep freeze.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how treacherous a slushy road can be,” says Miller. “Icy water at –1°C can be very dangerous.”

As can black ice: “I see a lot of vehicles sliding off the road on sunny days as they’re going into a shaded area. The pavement looks dry, and then they go into a corner where there’s a tree that has shaded the road all morning, and there’s ice.”

To cope, maximize rubber traction. “Winter tires are designed to work really well from 7°C and down,” says Miller. “I think some people feel that because we don’t always get a lot of snow, like Alberta or Saskatchewan, we don’t need winter tires, but they’re for cold temperatures, snow or not.”

When temperatures are around the freezing point, reduce speed – potentially below the speed limit if conditions demand – and increase your following distance, he adds. Keep an eye out for shady spots and bridges, which defrost slowly. If you start to slide, gently take your foot off the accelerator. Keep your eyes trained in the direction you want to go, even if you’re spinning, and steer gently until you regain traction.

winter roads

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Tip!

Pedestrians should use extra caution at night, wearing bright or reflective clothing to make sure drivers can see them.

 
bc fog

Fog

This low-lying cloud forms in times of high humidity, when moisture becomes suspended in the air. If you encounter it on the road, the best thing you can do is slow down – way down. If you have fog lights, switch them on. They shine at an angle that cuts reflection. “Fog lights not only help you see, but they’ll help others see you,” says Miller. Maintain a safe following distance, too. “As long as you can see the tail lights in front of you, keep that distance.”


Wind

When strong winds whip up during winter storms, they can blow down trees and signs, and scatter debris onto the road. Again, slow down, says Miller, giving yourself more time to stop if you encounter a foreign object in the road. Downed utility poles are especially dangerous. If you come across one, BC Hydro recommends staying at least 10 metres away and calling 911. Use caution when passing semi-trucks, RVs and other large vehicles in windy weather, too, and allow them extra room. They have more surface area for the wind to push on, making them more prone to swerving. If you’re driving a large vehicle like a van, RV or pickup with large trailer, consider pulling over and waiting for the gusts to die down.


Photo credits: iStock, Getty Images

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